Monday, February 28, 2011

James Salter

I've been a fan of the writer James Salter (see also here) since discovering his masterpiece A Sport and a Pastime. Salter evokes Americans in France as no one since Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. The title comes from the Koran: Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime ... :-)

I can't think of higher praise than to say I've read every bit of Salter's work I could get my hands on.

Today I came across this excellent interview he did with the Paris Review. See also this appearance on Charlie Rose, in which he reads movingly from his memoir Burning the Days.


When A Sport and a Pastime came out you were hailed as “celebrating the rites of erotic innovation” and yet also criticized for portraying such “vigorous ‘love’ scenes.” What did you think of all that?


The eroticism is the heart and substance of the book. That seems obvious. I meant it to be, to use a word of Lorca’s, “lubricious” but pure, to describe things that were unspeakable in one sense, but at the same time, irresistible. Having traveled, I also was aware that voyages are, in a large sense, a search for, a journey toward love. A voyage without that is rather sterile. Perhaps this is a masculine view, but I think not entirely. The idea is of a life that combines sex and architecture—I suppose that’s what the book is, but that doesn’t explain it. It’s more or less a guide to what life might be, an ideal.


People seem to have different opinions of what the book is about.


I listen occasionally to people explaining the book to me. Every few years there’s an inquiry from a producer who would like to make a movie of it. I’ve turned the offers down because it seems to me ridiculous to try and film it. To my mind the book is obvious. I don’t see the ambiguity, but there again, you don’t know precisely what you are writing. Besides, how can you explain your own work? It’s vanity. To me it seems you can understand the book, if there’s been any doubt, by reading the final paragraph:

As for Anne-Marie, she lives in Troyes now, or did. She is married. I suppose there are children. They walk together on Sundays, the sunlight falling upon them. They visit friends, talk, go home in the evening, deep in the life we all agree is so greatly to be desired.

That paragraph, the final sentence, is written in irony, but perhaps not read that way. If you don’t see the irony, then the book is naturally going to have a different meaning for you.


It has been said that Dean’s desire for Anne-Marie is also a desire for the “real” France. It’s a linked passion.


France is beautiful, but his desire is definitely for the girl herself. Of course she is an embodiment. Even when you recognize what she is, she evokes things. But she would be desirable to him even if she didn’t.


There’s a postmodern side to the book. The narrator indicates that he’s inventing Dean and Anne-Marie out of his own inadequacies.


That’s just camouflage.


What do you mean?


This book would have been difficult to write in the first person—that is to say if it were Dean’s voice. It would be quite interesting written from Anne-Marie’s voice, but I wouldn’t know how to attempt that. On the other hand, if it were in the third person, the historic third, so to speak, it would be a little disturbing because of the explicitness, the sexual descriptions. The question was how to paint this, more or less. I don’t recall how it came to me, but the idea of having a third person describe it, somebody who is really not an important part of the book but merely serving as an intermediary between the book and the reader, was perhaps the thing that was going to make it possible; and consequently, I did that. I don’t know who this narrator is. You could say it’s me; well, possibly. But truly, there is no such person. He’s a device. He’s like the figure in black that moves the furniture in a play, so to speak, essential, but not part of the action.



What do you think Light Years is truly about?


The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither. It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train—a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by—everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes. The animals die, the house is sold, the children are grown, even the couple itself has vanished, and yet there is this poem. It was criticized as elitist, but I’m not sure this is so. The two of them are really rather unexceptional. She was beautiful, but that passed; he was devoted, but not strong enough really to hold onto life. The title was originally “Nedra and Viri”—in my books, the woman is always the stronger. If you can believe this book, and it is true, there is a dense world built on matrimony, a life enclosed, as it says, in ancient walls. It is about the sweetness of those unending days.



I’ve read that the notion behind Light Years came from a remark by Jean Renoir.


“The only things that are important in life are the things you remember.” Yes, I like that idea. I came across it after I was working on the book. But no matter, it authenticated something I felt. I wanted to compose a book of those things that one remembers in life. That was the notion. I suppose that the plot of the book is the passage of time and what it does to people and things. Perfectly obvious again, but combining those two ideas gave me the feeling of what the book should be. That still doesn’t displease. I find it satisfying.



At one point Viri says, “There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you’re living and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, that other we long to see.”


Isn’t this like that very small book that Poe said could never be written, “My Heart Laid Bare.” There is a socially acceptable, let us say, conventional life that we live and discuss and pretty much adhere to, and there is the other life, which is the life of thought, fantasy, and desire that is not openly discussed. I’m sure, the times being what they are, there are people who do talk about it and probably on television, but in general, in most lives, these two things are completely distinct. I am conscious of them and attempted to write a little about it.



You’ve written that after you returned to domestic life you eventually stopped talking about your war days, but now you’re writing about them.


There was no point in talking about war days. Who was there to talk to about them? Someone at a party telling you about being over Ploesti or what he did in Vietnam usually trivializes it. You have to have the right audience. Also, when you write about it you have the opportunity to arrange it exactly the way you would like, and one presumes that the reader is going to be enthralled.


But why a memoir?


To restore those years when one says, All this is mine—these cities, women, houses, days.


What do you think is the ultimate impulse to write?


To write? Because all this is going to vanish. The only thing left will be the prose and poems, the books, what is written down. Man was very fortunate to have invented the book. Without it the past would completely vanish, and we would be left with nothing, we would be naked on earth.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

BJ Penn forever

Last night BJ Penn, whose natural weight class is 155 (or even 145 if he were any good at cutting weight), took the #2 ranked welterweight (John Fitch, whose natural weight is probably around 190-200) to a draw. In his career Penn has held the championship belt at 155 and 170, and faced world champions at 155, 170 and even 205 (LHW - Lyoto Machida). He was the first non-Brazilian to win a world championship in BJJ, after only a few years of training. Penn lacks a lot of things you might want from a top level fighter -- he's not that strong, his endurance is suspect, he's usually undersized, etc., etc. But in terms of raw fighting ability he is one of the all time greats. The most exceptional quality Penn has is gameness -- he'll fight anyone, anytime.

Here's the Gracie technique analysis. Flow with the go ;-)

Here is a better shot of BJ and Fitch. Does it look like they should be in the same weight class?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fear and loathing and hollowing out

Why have public sector unions become the welfare queens of recent political discourse?

NYTimes: ... In Ohio, economic decline has redrawn the map, devastating towns and cities, and making some places unrecognizable. Mr. Carner, now 70, recalled making a wrong turn at night in Toledo a number of years ago, not realizing where he was because population decline had left entire blocks abandoned and dark.

“We’re just a little bit afraid, like an old man who is trying to make his way, but is lost,” he said. “We used to be the big boys on the block, but the rest of the world is catching up with us in so many ways.”

Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard, said he saw the hostility toward unions as a sign of decay in society. Some working-class people see so few possibilities for their lives that it is eroding the aspirational nature that has long been typical of Americans.

“It shows a hopelessness,” he said. “It used to be, ‘You have something I don’t have; I’ll go to my employer to get it, too. Now I don’t see any chance of getting it. I don’t want to be the lowest one on the totem pole, so I don’t want you to have it either.’ ”

See also this earlier post from 2005: Equilibration can hurt.

Here's Richard Freeman last year at Alibaba's (Chinese internet company) Hangzhou offices. When it comes to labor economics, Richard tells it like it is.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

In transit

I'm back in Asia now.

I splurged and went for the business class upgrade. Well worth it as I was able to sleep about 4 hours and ended up sitting next to someone that may be a valuable contact in the future. Global elites, indeed.

Here's the Narita Red Carpet Club, which has showers, sushi, booze and wifi.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Caltech basketball

Looks like they finally broke their losing streak :-) Covered by the NYTimes, no less!

I was on the swimming, waterpolo and football teams (the football team no longer exists). The swimming and waterpolo teams (competing in somewhat geekier sports) were more successful than the basketball team. The football team would have probably had a similar losing streak if we played regular SCIAC competition, although we did have a superstar running back (Div I quality) who was scouted for the USFL as a senior.

Coincidentally, I picked up this t-shirt at the bookstore last week when I was visiting. The shirts were on clearance, so I got mine for 50 percent off. Now I bet they're a hot item. Go Beavers!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lunch with Razib

I had lunch with blogger and population geneticist Razib Khan today. Lunch turned into coffee which turned into hours of discussion. Razib told me he's been blogging for a decade now. See him discuss multiregional human evolution in light of recent discoveries of archaic DNA in certain human subgroups, with Michigan paleo anthropologist Milford Wolpoff:

One concrete outcome from the meeting is I've now created a twitter feed for my blog posts. See here: @hsu_steve.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

In search of brainpower

I'm back in Berkeley again after my visit to Caltech. Later this week I'll return to my sabbatical in Taiwan.

As I mentioned in this earlier post, I've lately been working on the unconventional idea that the theta parameter in QED might be directly measurable (specifically, in experiments involving superpositions of photonic states; slides). If I'm correct, there is an additional fundamental parameter of the standard model, and of QED, that has yet to be measured. On this trip I've discussed this idea with theorists at Oregon, Berkeley and Caltech, and also with experimentalists in quantum optics at Oregon, Stanford and Caltech.

During my week at Caltech I sought out my former professors Mark Wise (McCone Professor of Theoretical Physics), John Preskill (Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics) and David Politzer (Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics) to get their feedback on the idea. Mark and John both arrived on campus in 1983, my freshman year. They and David were the bright young professors on the fourth floor of Lauritsen, successors to the giants, Feynman and Gell-Mann. As you might expect, it's psychologically quite difficult to be the advocate of an idea that goes against conventional wisdom. An iconoclastic "maverick spirit" is probably as necessary for innovation as is raw intelligence. I was counting on their brainpower to help me find the problems with my work -- what is opaque to me might be obvious to them :-)

It's entirely possible that I'll discover, after many months of effort, that the work is incorrect. Dave Politzer told me, either this idea will be seen in retrospect to be obvious, and people will wonder why they didn't have the imagination to think of it, or there's something wrong that will be revealed under further examination. I guess time will tell.

Action photo: theoretician at work in a Berkeley cafe.

Another beautiful sunset.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Caltech photos 2

Dining room at the Athenaeum, where I am staying. The painting is a portrait of the astronomer George Hale, the chemist Arthur Noyes, and the physicist Robert Millikan.

Sean Carroll has Feynman's old desk.

Speaking of Feynman, here is an idolatrous shrine.

The Annenberg Center is my favorite new building, and home of the Institute of Quantum Information.

Another beautiful sunset! No palm trees at MIT or Harvard ...

Sociobiological implications of the (historical) rural Chinese economy?

I thought readers might be interested in this unpublished paper by former theoretical physicist Ron Unz, entitled Preliminary notes on the possible sociobiological implications of the rural Chinese economy. Ron anticipates economist Greg Clark's ideas concerning how selection pressure related to culture and economics shaped the English (see here and here), although it is fair to say the general line of thinking is quite old.

(From Ron's email.)

A few points to keep in mind:

(A) Reading it over again, I find much of it to be of rather embarrassingly low quality. You might even want to completey ignore the first 1 1/2 pages, which really aren't on the topic itself. But *please* do keep in mind that I did write it as a college freshman for an independent study I'd persuaded E.O. Wilson to give me on Sociobiology. And I do think my theory itself is probably correct, even though the presentation and style isn't very good.

(B) The idea is a very simple one, and I'd actually gotten it a couple of years earlier when I was taking a seminar on the rural Chinese political economy back at UCLA. Chinese society had several fairly unique characteristics which together probably caused the evolution of high Chinese intelligence.

(1) For many centuries and to some extent for a couple of millenia, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits. The orderly, stable, and advanced nature of Chinese society meant that food supply and poverty were usually the limiting factor on population, rather than wars, general violence, or plagues.

(2) Chinese rural life was remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements, vastly more complex and legalistic than anything you would find among European peasants let alone those in Africa or elsewhere. Hence there was obviously huge selective pressure for those able to prosper under a system of such (relative) financial complexity.

(3) Virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing, with none of the feudal or caste legal districtions you would find in Europe or India. Successful poor peasants who acquired wealth became the complete social equals of rich peasants or landlords. Rich peasants or landlords who lost their wealth became no different from all other poor peasants.

(4) In each generation only the relatively affluent could afford to marry, e.g. have parents wealthy enough to afford to buy them wives. The poor couldn't obtain wives for their children, hence didn't have grandchildren.

(5) The unique Chinese custom of "fenjia" meant that land, i.e. wealth, was equally divided among all sons. Since the wealthy tended to have several surviving children, those children automatically started life much poorer than their parents, and needed to reacquire wealth through their own ability. Because of this system, rural Chinese society exhibited an absolutely massive and continual degree of downward social mobility, perhaps unprecedented in human history. Each generation, a good fraction of the poor disappeared from the gene-pool, while the wealthy generally became poor. The richest slice of the population could afford multiple wives and numerous children, but due to fenjia this just tended to impoverish their families to a compensating extent.

(6) The smartest children of the wealthy often received specialized education in hopes they might pass imperial exams and thereby join the "gentry," which might greatly increase the future economic prospects for themselves and their close relatives. So there was indeed some "pull at the top" but I think the genetic impact was pretty small compared to the "push from the bottom."

(7) Overall, the model is pretty similar I think to what that Clark fellow wrote about England. However, I think the degree of genetic pressure in each generation was enormously greater, fenjia caused automatic downward mobility each generation, and I think the system remained in place for several times longer than the few centuries Clark claims for England. So you'd expect the results to be much greater.

(8) One very important difference with the Cochran-Harpending model for the Ashk Jews of Eastern Europe is that the selective pressure was multifaceted. Ashk Jews merely needed to be smart and make money in order to become selectively advantaged. However, the selective pressure on Chinese peasants pushed in lots of different directions simultaneously. Peasants needed to be smart and have good business-sense, but they were also being selected on the basis of physical endurance, robustness, diligence, discipline, energy-consumption, and lots of other things. So selection for intelligence couldn't come too much at the expense of other vital traits, hence took place much more slowly.

Anyway, I really should try to write up a "clean" version of this paper at some point, but meanwhile feel free to reference it if you'd like, though please to characterize it as "unpublished."



See also this 1920s characterization (Stoddard) of Chinese as economic competitors:

Certainly no one has ever denied the Chinaman's extraordinary economic efficiency. Winnowed by ages of grim elimination in a land populated to the uttermost limits of subsistence, the Chinese race is selected as no other for survival under the fiercest conditions of economic stress. At home the average Chinese lives his whole life literally within a hand's breadth of starvation. Accordingly, when removed to the easier environment of other lands, the Chinaman brings with him a working capacity which simply appalls his competitors. That urbane Celestial, Doctor Wu-Ting-Fang, well says of his own people: "Experience proves that the Chinese as all-round laborers can easily outdistance all competitors. They are industrious, intelligent, and orderly. They can work under conditions that would kill a man of less hardy race; in heat that would kill a salamander, or in cold that would please a polar bear, sustaining their energies, through long hours of unremitting toil with only a few bowls of rice." (Quoted by Alleyne Ireland, "Commercial Aspects of the Yellow Peril," North American Review, September, 1900.)

This Chinese estimate is echoed by the most competent foreign observers. The Australian thinker, Charles E. Pearson, wrote of the Chinese a generation ago in his epoch-making book, "National Life and Character": "Flexible as Jews, they can thrive on the mountain plateaux of Thibet and under the sun of Singapore; more versatile even than Jews, they are excellent laborers, and not without merit as soldiers and sailors; while they have a capacity for trade which no other nation of the East possesses. They do not need even the accident of a man of genius to develop their magnificent future." (Charles H. Pearson, "National Life and Character," p. 118 (2nd edition).)

And Lafcadio Hearn says: "A people of hundreds of millions disciplined for thousands of years to the most untiring industry and the most self-denying thrift, under conditions which would mean worse than death for our working masses -- a people, in short, quite content to strive to the uttermost in exchange for the simple privilege of life." (Quoted by Ireland, supra.)

This economic superiority of the Chinaman shows not only with other races, but with his yellow kindred as well. As regards the Japanese, John Chinaman has proved it to the hilt. Wherever the two have met in economic competition, John has won hands down. Even in Japanese colonies like Korea and Formosa, the Japanese, with all the backing of their government behind them, have been worsted. ...

The Great Stagnation

Tyler Cowen discusses his new book The Great Stagnation here. I agree with him that a lot of the low hanging fruit in science and technology and in utilization of human capital has been picked. The interview is quite good and Cowen makes a number of keen observations.

Amazon: America is in disarray and our economy is failing us. We have been through the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and talk of a double-dip recession persists. Americans are not pulling the world economy out of its sluggish state -- if anything we are looking to Asia to drive a recovery. Median wages have risen only slowly since the 1970s, and this multi-decade stagnation is not yet over. By contrast, the living standards of earlier generations would double every few decades. The Democratic Party seeks to expand government spending even when the middle class feels squeezed, the public sector doesn’t always perform well, and we have no good plan for paying for forthcoming entitlement spending. To the extent Republicans have a consistent platform, it consists of unrealistic claims about how tax cuts will raise revenue and stimulate economic growth. The Republicans, when they hold power, are often a bigger fiscal disaster than the Democrats. How did we get into this mess? Imagine a tropical island where the citrus and bananas hang from the trees. Low-hanging literal fruit -- you don’t even have to cook the stuff. In a figurative sense, the American economy has enjoyed lots of low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century: free land; immigrant labor; and powerful new technologies. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are barer than we would like to think. That’s it. That is what has gone wrong. The problem won’t be solved overnight, but there are reasons to be optimistic. We simply have to recognize the underlying causes of our past prosperity—low hanging fruit—and how we will come upon more of it.

In the interview Cowen lists Caltech as one of the success stories of innovation :-)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Demography and destiny

From an article in The Times Higher Education (formerly Times Higher Education Supplement). The reporter was shocked at the clear cut statistics showing discrimination against Asians in elite higher education. He wondered how this could be the case in the 21st century and why the story wasn't covered more widely. In trying to get approval to do a bigger story he was told that since Dan Golden (Bloomberg) had written about it a couple of times there was no need to make a fuss about it.

... Yet statistics suggest that students from one of the most academically successful ethnic groups, East Asians, are being admitted to US universities at surprisingly low rates. Although they comprise less than 4 per cent of the US population as a whole, East Asians make up 24 per cent of students at elite universities. But they would probably comprise an even larger share if some were not being kept out by seemingly lopsided admissions requirements.

Universities deny that they have quotas to keep East Asian students out. Statistics show, however, that only one in 15 East Asian applicants is admitted to Ivy League universities, compared with one of every 10 applicants of other racial groups.

Thomas Espenshade, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, calculated that East Asians needed perfect scores of 1,600 on the principal university entrance examination, the SAT Reasoning Test, to have the same chance of being accepted at a top private university as whites who scored 1,460 and blacks who scored 1,150. He found that whites were three times, blacks five times and Hispanics twice as likely to be accepted at a US university as East Asians. [Note: This should read: "Whites were three times as likely to get fat envelopes as Asians. Hispanics were twice as likely to win admission as whites. African-Americans were at least five times as likely to be accepted as whites." These probabilities are obtained after controlling for grades, test scores, athletic qualifications, and family history! See here.]

"It's both true that Asians are over-represented and that they're being discriminated against," Hsu says. "The [two] things can happen at the same time." University admissions, he adds, "should be a meritocracy. But people have other social goals in mind."

As in Texas, public university admissions policies in California have been affected by politics and court rulings. In 1996, California voters banned the use of affirmative-action policies by public agencies, including universities, and that ban was upheld by a court as recently as December. (Voters have adopted similar bans on racial preferences in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington State.) Without such racial filters, the percentage of East Asian students at the University of California at Irvine shot up to 61 per cent, Berkeley 42 per cent and University of California, Los Angeles 38 per cent, in a state where East Asians comprise just 13 per cent of the population.

This indicates that universities in other states are handicapping East Asian applicants, Hsu says.

"It's all hush-hush, but it's pretty clear from the data," he alleges. "[Elite] schools ... don't disclose they're doing it. They just all sort of magically end up with under 20 per cent Asian students."

Hsu says universities do this partly to ensure diversity that might be crowded out by large numbers of East Asians, and partly to avoid alienating their alumni.

"The motivation for, say, Harvard (whose undergraduate population is 16 per cent East Asian) wanting to cap its Asian admissions is that they may lose some alumni support. If they have some rich alumni whose kids might not want to work too hard (to compete with the East Asian students)."

The disparity has received as little attention in the US as the shift of whites to minority status among the undergraduate population at the University of Texas at Austin. But similar changes in Canada's higher education sector provoked controversy last autumn when the weekly news magazine Maclean's, in its annual university issue, asked whether Canadian universities were becoming, as a much-criticised headline put it, "Too Asian?"

With 85 per cent of East Asian parents of Toronto high school students saying they expect their children to go on to university, compared with 59 per cent of whites and 49 per cent of blacks, and Asian-Americans of East Asian origin who are unable to gain admission to US universities transferring their focus to Canadian institutions, the magazine reported that Canadian universities were becoming "so academically focused that some (non-Asian) students feel they can no longer compete or have fun".

Some white students quoted in the article said they would not choose the University of Toronto precisely because it has so many East Asian students. (A university spokeswoman denies there has been such a backlash.)

The debate has at its heart the received idea that East Asians work harder or are innately smarter than non-Asians - or, as Hsu puts it, "a pushy group of people making life too hard" - just as Jews were once portrayed.

But while "it's certainly a stereotype, it might have some statistical basis", Hsu says. "You're talking about a recent immigrant population. It probably was true that the average Jewish kid admitted to the Ivy League in the early 1900s worked harder than other kids."

Today, he adds, "it's a not-so-well-kept secret in the Asian community that you have to work that much harder when you're Asian."

Universities, however, are trying to focus on increasing the numbers of Hispanics and blacks, on the basis that these racial groups are the biggest source of future students. They help them to meet challenges on campus and also try to improve the preparation they receive in hard-pressed secondary schools. ...

Why you should be suspicious of what the elite schools are up to, despite official statements (from an earlier post):

OCR = Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which conducted an investigation of anti-Asian bias in Harvard admissions around 1990.

The Chosen, p.510: ... Asian Americans had the highest SATs of all [among groups admitted to Harvard]: 1450 out of a possible 1600. In 1991 the Asian-American/white admission ratio [ratio of percentages of applicants from each group admitted] stood at 84 percent -- a sharp downturn from 98 percent in 1990, when the scrutiny from OCR was at its peak. Though [this ratio] never dropped again to the 64 percent level of 1986, it never returned to its 1990 zenith. Despite Asian Americans' growing proportion of the national population, their enrollment also peaked in 1990 at 20 percent, where it more or less remained until 1994. ... by 2001 it had dropped below 15 percent.

So the "subjective but fair" measures used in admissions resulted in a record high admit rate for Asians during the year Harvard was under investigation by the federal government. But mysteriously the admit rate (relative to that of white applicants) went down significantly after the investigation ended, and the overall Asian enrollment has not increased despite the increasing US population fraction of Asians.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Silva - Fedor MMA

Gracies break down the technical aspects of the Silva - Fedor fight.

Here is the actual fight. Fedor needs to drop to 205 if he wants to continue to compete. He used his superior quickness and explosiveness to go for the knockout, but Silva was striking effectively and in the second round managed to get Fedor down. A 280 lb BJJ black belt in the top position is very hard to deal with. They call Fedor The Last Emperor, and he had a great run in MMA, but his time is nearly over now.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Caltech photos

The Olive Walk and student houses.

Fleming House, with cannon.

Page House, where Men Are Men, and Giants Walk The Earth.

Around Millikan Library. If the campus looks empty, well, it is. There are just over 800 undergrads and about 1000 grad students, IIRC.

Beckman auditorium.

Two relatively new buildings -- not here when I was a student.

Bobos and the brain

Look out -- it appears David Brooks is readying a cognitive science-influenced 21st century version of Bobos in Paradise :-)

New Yorker: ... A year or so after they were married, Harold and Erica spent a week with Harold’s parents at their house in Aspen. They went riding and rafting and they attended an ideas festival. They sat through panel discussions on green technology and on how to adopt a charter school, and they spent a few hours immersed in the “China: Friend or Foe?” debate. One morning, they attended a talk by a neuroscientist. He was a young man in black jeans and a leather jacket, and he came to the session carrying a motorcycle helmet, as if he’d just escaped from a Caltech revival of “Grease.” He greeted a Finnish TV crew that was making a documentary about his work, mounted the stage, and gave a slide presentation that started with a series of optical illusions, like two tabletops that seem totally different but are actually the same size.

Then he displayed a series of colorful brain-scan pictures and threw out some startling statistics: we have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eighty-first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe; the ability to distinguish between a “P” and a “B” sound involves as many as twenty-two sites across the brain; even something as simple as seeing a color in a painting involves a mind-bogglingly complex set of mental constructions. Our perceptions, the scientist said, are fantasies we construct that correlate with reality.

At first, Harold found the talk a little chilling: it seemed that the revolution the scientist was describing was bound to lead to cold, mechanistic conclusions. If everything could be reduced to genes, neural wiring, and brain chemistry, what happened to the major concepts of life—good and evil, sin and virtue, love and commitment? And what about the way Harold made sense of his life as he lived it, the everyday vocabulary of morals, moods, character, aspirations, temptations, values, ideals? The scientist described human beings as creatures driven by deep mechanisms, almost like puppets on strings, not as ensouled human beings capable of running their own lives.

During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived. He paused for a second, and then starting talking about a group he had joined called the Russian-American Folk Dance Company. It was odd, given how hard and scientific he had sounded. “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

“And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”

As the scientist went on to talk about the rush he got from riding his motorcycle in the mountains, Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

After the lecture, Harold joined his family and they went downtown to their favorite gelato shop, where Harold had his life-altering epiphany. He’d spent years struggling to dazzle his Mandarin tutors while excelling in obscure sports, trying (not too successfully) to impress admissions officers with S.A.T. prowess and water-purification work in Zambia, sweating to wow his bosses with not overlong PowerPoints. But maybe the real action was in this deeper layer. After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like. So resolved, he boldly surveyed the gelato selections before him and confidently chose the cloudberry.

Below Brooks describes the "soft skills" he feels are more critical to success than IQ. See earlier discussion of "soft" elite firms. I'll maintain my earlier claim that value creation (e.g., technological innovation) is tied more directly to g, whereas extraction of rents, skimming the cream, manipulation of other apes, etc. are more tied to soft skills ;-) Who is creating more value for human civilization in the excerpt above -- the neuroscientist (a high g maverick who comes up with original insights) or Harold (a relatively dull person who nevertheless, thanks to his soft skills, earns much more money)? The neuroscientist is a PhD and Harold is a prototypical HBS guy.

Throughout his life, Harold had a superior ability to feel what others were feeling. He didn’t dazzle his teachers with academic brilliance, but, even in kindergarten, he could tell you who in his class was friends with whom; he was aware of social networks. Scientists used to think that we understand each other by observing each other and building hypotheses from the accumulated data. Now it seems more likely that we are, essentially, method actors who understand others by simulating the responses we see in them. When Harold was in high school, he could walk around the cafeteria and fall in with the unique social patterns that prevailed in each clique. He could tell which clique tolerated drug use or country-music listening and which didn’t. He could tell how many guys a girl could hook up with and not be stigmatized. In some groups, the number was three; in others seven. Most people assume that the groups they don’t belong to are more homogeneous than the groups they do belong to. Harold could see groups from the inside. When he sat down with, say, the Model U.N. kids, he could guess which one of them wanted to migrate from the Geeks and join the Honors/Athletes. He could sense who was the leader of any group, who was the jester, who played the role of peacemaker, daredevil, organizer, or self-effacing audience member.

Compare with this description (comment) offered by a former physicist who now occupies a very senior position at an elite financial firm:

My experiences with HYPS grads from "wimpy majors", econ, history, etc... who ended up at tier I i-banks have been interesting. I am consistently shocked by their superb interpersonal skills. I hate to dilute serious discussion with politics, but think of Barry Obama - a man who can sell an entire country on a contentless refrain of "hope and change" off the back of his empty resume while taking on Mr. McCain - a man with a "power establishment" resume. The American system finds the Barack Obama's and promotes them. At the same time it finds the Mark Zuckerberg's. At a place like Goldman you will find both Obama's and Zuckerberg's - but only because both types figure out, in advance, that it was in their interest to go there to leverage the brand name. In the fullness of time, each are revealed for what they are.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Berkeley photos 2

Tomorrow I'm headed down to Caltech. Here are a few more Berkeley photos.

An LBNL building I particularly like. The big glass wall has a great view of the Bay.

This is the hottest restaurant in Berkeley (NYTimes review: "Gather has the feel of a Michael Pollan book come to life"). A foodie friend insisted we go there and enjoy the vegan “charcuterie” plate :-) Menu.

I got home in time to watch Antonio Silva administer the beatdown on Fedor. Zhoozhitsu! Zhoozhitsu! Very tough to deal with a bigger, stronger guy with good jits. Fedor kept winging punches looking for the knockout, but once Silva got top position his ground technique was too much for the Russian. I doubt the fight game is very popular at Gather.

Shooting Through the Wormhole

I spent almost 12 hours today shooting for an episode of the Science Channel's Through the Wormhole. The producer told me our efforts would result in a 6 minute segment that will air towards the end of the summer. See earlier post for some discussion of the actual science in the episode.

In the episode I drive the VW bug below through a tunnel (the Caldecott tunnel; don't ask how many takes we did!), to simulate what it would be like to go through a wormhole :-)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Through the wormhole

Tomorrow a team from the Science Channel show Through the Wormhole (Morgan Freeman is the narrator) is flying up to Berkeley to interview me for an upcoming episode. They found me because of a paper I wrote with my former postdoc Roman Buniy (see below). Roman is a brilliant guy who twice placed first in the Ukrainian physics Olympiad. He made the beautiful figures below.

Doing this kind of show isn't exactly a win-win: I would guess the volume of crackpot mail I receive could go up by an order of magnitude :-(

Semi-classical wormholes and time machines are unstable


Abstract: We show that Lorentzian (traversable) wormholes and time machines with semi-classical spacetimes are unstable due to their violation of the null energy condition (NEC). Semi-classicality of the energy-momentum tensor in a given quantum state (required for semi-classicality of the spacetime) implies localization of its wavefunction in phase space, leading to evolution according to the classical equations of motion. Previous results related to violation of the NEC then require that the configuration is unstable to small perturbations.

Here are some slides on the subject. Click for larger version. For more background on why it is difficult to construct effective field theories which lead to (stable) violation of the null energy condition (NEC), see Phys. Rev. D 74, 063518 (2006).

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Feynman and magic

Not only was I at the lecture described below, I volunteered and Randi did "psychic surgery" on me. (See video.) It must have looked ghastly, but I couldn't see anything as I was just lying on a table while Randi appeared to pull organ-like things out of my stomach. I didn't know Feynman was in the audience!

Reverse engineering magic tricks is very, very hard. Sometimes I'll watch a good sleight or illusion over and over again on video before I can even guess how it is done.

Back in 1984 Feynman attended a lecture at Caltech given by James Amazing Randi, a well known magician and debunker of psychics. At this lecture, Randi performed a very good mental trick involving a newspaper and a prediction contained in an envelope pasted to the blackboard. The next evening, Randi and Feynman were at my house for dinner. It was a delightful and fun evening with lots of jokes and laughter all around. At about 1:30 a.m., Feynman and Randi still going strong, Feynman decided to figure out how Randi did his mental trick. Oh, no. You can't solve that trick. You don't have enough information! Randi exclaimed. What do you mean? Physicists never have enough information, Feynman responded. Feynman began to stare off into space with Randi muttering on how he would not be able to solve it. Step by step, Feynman went through the process out loud and told Randi how the trick must have been done. Randi literally fell backwards over his chair and exclaimed, You didn't fall off no apple cart! You didn't get that Swedish Prize for nothing! Feynman roared with laughter. Later, on another visit to Caltech, Randi once again joined us for lunch. He did another trick for Feynman, this time a card trick. I DELIBERATELY misled you this time! Randi stated. Feynman paid him no attention. In less than three minutes, Feynman solved the trick. I'm never going to show you another trick again! declared a frustrated Randi.

I found this anecdote here. (Thanks to commenter on earlier thread for the pointer.) Below is another involving Roger Penrose.

Not long ago I gave a lecture at Oxford University. While I was there I had the good fortune to have a long lunch with physicist/mathematician Roger Penrose, who is responsible for much of our understanding of black holes. The topic of Feynman came up and Penrose related the following story: A while back he was visiting Caltech with Steven Hawking. Hawking asked Penrose if there was anyone at Caltech that he wanted to meet. The choice obviously came down to either Feynman or Gell-Mann. Penrose decided they should try to get a hold of Feynman. Hawking called up the office, but Feynman wasn't in. He was on vacation. It turns out, however, he was vacationing at his home. Hawking called Feynman at home and Feynman reluctantly agreed to come over the next day. The subject of quantum gravity came up and Penrose and Feynman got into a heated argument. Penrose said, Feynman was so quick, he was usually about five steps ahead of me at any given point. Sometimes he didn't listen to what I was saying. The whole thing was mentally exhausting. I was completely drained at the end of the session. I have never encountered anyone so quick before. What Penrose and many other physicists didn't realize was the reason that accounted for Feynman's quickness on many matters in physics. Feynman thought about some of these areas in great depth and for long periods of time. A topic like quantum gravity would be one that Feynman had spent countless hours thinking about. It wasn't all off the cuff.

You say you want a revolution

An interview with the Google exec whose Facebook page helped trigger the demonstrations in Egypt. Finally all of those naive and idealistic predictions about the power of the internet are coming true :-)

NYTimes: ... some new demonstrators said they had joined the protests after watching an emotional television interview on Monday night with Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive who was snatched off the street nearly two weeks ago, for his role in helping to organize the revolt as the administrator of a popular Facebook page.

One protester in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, Ahmed Meyer El Shamy, an executive with an international pharmaceutical company, told The Times, “many, many people” had resolved to join the demonstration “because of what they saw on TV last night.”

During that interview, Mr. Ghonim acknowledged that he had been the anonymous administrator of the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said, dedicated to the memory of a 28-year-old Egyptian man beaten to death by the police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010, which helped spark the protests.

More video at the NYTimes link above. (Sorry, I just realized the version below doesn't have subtitles. Unless you speak Arabic you have to click through to the Times; the last video shows Ghonim's emotional reaction when shown pictures of protestors who died.)

Monday, February 07, 2011

Ron Unz and wealth inequality

Last night I had dinner with Ron Unz, a former theoretical physicist who has also been a software entrepreneur and a maverick political activist. We covered a wide range of issues, from science to technology to public policy. It was a real pleasure to talk to someone with such depth and breadth of understanding. Ron is yet another counterexample to those who claim that theoretical physicists can't do practical things. In fact, most former physicists I know end up doing very interesting and sometimes important things after leaving the field.

Both Ron and I are very concerned (perhaps even gloomy) about the future of America. He mentioned a disturbing statistic: the top 1 percent of Americans control as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent! Indeed, as discussed in this paper by NYU economist Edward Wolff, the rough breakdown is that the top 1 percent, the next 9 percent, and the remaining 90 percent each have about the same combined wealth! In the table below the most recent figures are for 2004. In the wake of the housing bubble I'd expect that the relative share of the rich has gone up a bit, since for average Americans a big chunk of their net worth is in their homes. US levels of inequality exceed those of other developed countries, but are comparable to China and still below (thank goodness) Mexico and Brazil. (See here for Gini Coefficients.)

See also net worth by age group:

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Berkeley photos

I had dinner on the north side. Bongo Burger, Top Dog, LaVal's, and some of the Asian restaurants seem to have survived 20+ years of competition :-)

When I was a student here they sometimes ran an ad (soliciting alumni support) in the Daily Californian showing that Berkeley had more Nobel Laureates than the entire USSR. I suppose the lab (now Lawrence Berkeley National Lab) might also, depending on how you count.

The Center for Theoretical Physics on campus. Early atomic bomb calculations were done on this floor of LeConte Hall by Oppenheimer, Teller and Bethe.

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